Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind

@World Scientific, 2018


Synergistic Selection Book CoverSynergistic Selection takes us on a synergy-guided tour of the history of life.  As Corning puts it, “life on Earth has been a synergistic phenomenon from the get go.”  He also shows how synergy has been a key to human evolution, including the rise of complex modern societies.  “Cooperation may have been the vehicle, but synergy was the driver.”  As we now face a tipping point in our evolution, Corning offers us a synergy-based road-map to the future.



“This magnificent book reveals the critical role of synergy in evolution and in all of biology, including especially in humankind… Peter Corning offers us a unique and hopeful new vision.”

—Anthony Trewavas, FRS, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Molecular Plant Science, University of Edinburgh and author of Plant Behaviour and Intelligence

“Peter Corning’s approach is wise and he is astonishingly well read… He writes extremely well and I read every word with great pleasure and interest… I am full of admiration and strongly recommend it.”

—Sir Patrick Bateson, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Biology, Cambridge University, president of the Zoological Society of London and the author of (among others) Behaviour, Development and Evolution.

“This is an important book. It offers a solution to a problem that has been central to evolutionary biology for half a century, with implications that reach down to the foundations of evolutionary theory… The book is also well written, a pleasure to read.”

—Daniel W. McShea, Professor of Biology, Duke University and co-author of Biology’s First Law.

“In this wide-ranging and intelligent book, Peter Corning presents a grand view of the evolution of complexity… Brave, well-written, and based on more than 30 years of deep reflection, Corning’s vision stretches into the future of our species and suggests new ways of anticipating and facing it.”

—Eva Jablonka, Professor, The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv University and co-author of (among others) Evolution in Four Dimensions.

(more advance praise follows)

If nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution – to paraphrase the pioneering twentieth century biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky – it’s equally true that nothing about the evolution of biological complexity makes sense except in the light of synergy.

Natural selection is a clever and immensely useful concept. It has provided us with a general theoretical framework for understanding how life has evolved over the past 3.8 billion years or so, and it is probably one of the best-known ideas in all of science (although it’s often misunderstood – more on this later on).

However, Darwin’s theory does not provide an explanation for the rise of biological complexity – one of the most consequential trends in the history of life on Earth. The trajectory of biological “complexification” – from primitive one-celled life forms to intricate eukaryotes, elaborate multicellular organisms, and, finally, a highly intelligent, tool using, sociable, loquacious biped – requires an additional explanatory principle….

Over the course of the past two decades, however, the subject of complexity has finally emerged as a major theme within mainstream evolutionary biology, and a search has been underway for “a Grand Unified Theory” – as biologist Daniel McShea characterizes it – that is consistent with Darwin’s great vision.

As it happens, such a theory already exists. It was first proposed in The Synergism Hypothesis: A Theory of Progressive Evolution in 1983, and it involves an economic (or perhaps bioeconomic) theory of complexity. Simply stated, cooperative interactions of various kinds, however they may occur, can produce novel combined effects – synergies – with functional advantages that may, in turn, become direct causes of natural selection. The focus of the Synergism Hypothesis is on the favorable selection of synergistic “wholes” and the combinations of genes that produce these wholes. The parts (and their genes) … may, in effect, become interdependent units of evolutionary change… I refer to it as Holistic Darwinism because it’s entirely consistent with the natural selection theory, properly understood.

Accordingly, it’s the functional (economic) benefits associated with various kinds of synergistic effects in any given context that are the underlying cause of cooperative relationships – and complex organization – in the natural world. The synergy produced by the whole provides the proximate functional payoffs that may differentially favor the survival and reproduction of the parts (and their genes).

Biologist Patrick Bateson illustrates this idea with an analogy. The recipe for a biscuit/cookie is rather like the genome in living systems. It represents a set of instructions for how to make an end-product. A shopper who buys a biscuit/cookie selects the “phenotype” – the end-product, not the recipe. If the recipe survives and the number of cookies multiply over time, it’s only because shoppers like the end-product and are willing to purchase more of them.

Although it may seem like backwards logic, the thesis is that functional synergy is the cause of cooperation and complexity in living systems, not the other way around. To repeat, the Synergism Hypothesis is basically an economic theory of emergent complexity, and it applies equally to biological and cultural evolution – most notably in humankind. Indeed, in Chapters 7 and 8 I will propose that social cooperation has been a key to our evolution as a species, and that synergy is the reason why we cooperate. In a very real sense, we invented ourselves….If cooperation was the vehicle, synergy was the driver….

Biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, in their pathbreaking work in the 1990s on the “major transitions” in evolution, came to the same conclusion independently about the causal role of synergy – although they graciously acknowledged the priority of my 1983 book in one of their two books on the subject. They applied their version of the Synergism Hypothesis specifically to the problem of explaining the emergence of new levels of biological organization over time.

Maynard Smith also proposed the concept of Synergistic Selection in a 1982 scientific paper as (in effect) a sub-category of natural selection. He illustrated with a formal mathematical model that included a term for “non-additive” benefits – that is, when 2+2=5 (or more). The idea is also distilled in the catchphrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” which traces back to Aristotle in the Metaphysics. Synergistic Selection refers to the many contexts in nature where two or more genes/genomes/individuals have a shared fate; they are functionally interdependent.

As we shall see, Synergistic Selection is an evolutionary dynamic with a much wider scope than even Maynard Smith envisioned. It includes, among other things, many additive phenomena with combined threshold effects (like the famous straw that broke the camel’s back) and, more important, many “qualitative novelties” that cannot even be expressed in quantitative terms.

Synergistic Selection focuses our attention on the causal dynamics and selective outcomes when synergistic phenomena of various kinds arise in the natural world. For it is synergy, and Synergistic Selection, that has driven the evolution of cooperation and complexity over time, including especially the major transitions in evolution. To borrow a famous expression, the arc of evolution bends toward synergy.

The psychologist and evolutionary theorist, Henry Plotkin – in a wide-ranging book about selection processes in evolution – threw down this gauntlet for his colleagues: “A general theory of the biological and social sciences must be able to supply a causal explanation…that encompasses all forms of social reality as well as the emergence of living forms…That is the challenge for any theory of selection that claims generality.” I believe that the Synergism Hypothesis and Synergistic Selection can meet this theoretical challenge. Life has been a synergistic phenomenon from the get go….

… but we must also look to the future. It’s now clear that we are at an evolutionary tipping point – another major transition that Darwin could not have foreseen. The challenge we face was forcefully stated by one of the most distinguished political commentators of the twentieth century, Walter Lippmann, in a 1969 interview just before he died. His words, more than ever, ring true:

This is not the first time that human affairs have been chaotic and seemed ungovernable. But never before, I think, have the stakes been so high…What is really pressing upon us is that the need to be governed…threatens to exceed man’s capacity to govern. This furious multiplication of the masses of mankind coincides with the ever more imminent threat that, because we are so ungoverned, we are polluting and destroying the environment in which the human race must live…. The supreme question before mankind – to which I shall not live to know the answer – is how men will be able to make themselves willing and able to save themselves.

Almost a half century later, Lippmann’s “supreme question” remains unanswered. I will focus on this global challenge in the final chapter….

A major theme in this book has been the creative role that living organisms themselves have played in shaping the course of evolution, culminating in the rise of the Self-Made Man. Now the Self-Made Man must take the initiative and evolve into a global superorganism.

Otherwise, we face the possibility of what could perhaps be termed the Anthropocene Implosion. There will be growing political conflict and social chaos, horrific violence and human suffering, and wanton self-annihilation on a global scale – not to mention the destruction of the biosphere (and our life-support system) as we know it. In a 2012 article in The Proceedings of the Royal Society co-authored by Paul Ehrlich and his wife (and long-time colleague) Anne Ehrlich, the authors ask: “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” It is possible, they conclude, but they are not optimistic.

An ominous foretaste of this dark future scenario is the current turmoil in the Middle East – ranging from the (mostly) disastrous Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS and the flood of refugees – all of which may in fact have been triggered by severe droughts and steep spikes in global food prices, according to a new in-depth analysis. (It’s also important to remember that this existential threat is greatly amplified by the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, and by the global reach of long-range missiles – not to mention the dark menace of ruthless terrorists.) As Edward Wilson put it in a recent interview: “We are a dysfunctional species,” with “Paleolithic emotions, Medieval institutions and god-like technologies…That’s a dangerous mix.”

The next major transition in evolution must span the entire globe and must subordinate the entire human species to the pursuit of the “common good” – which, again, can be defined in biological terms as sustaining and enhancing our interdependent “collective survival enterprise.” In the final reckoning, if our species fails to meet this great survival challenge, we will squander our evolutionary inheritance and betray what untold generations of our ancestors struggled to achieve over millions of years. To paraphrase the American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, we must all survive together or we will go extinct separately.

Our generation confronts an inescapable collective choice. If we can achieve global governance and a Fair Society for our species as a whole and, in the bargain, ensure the future of life on Earth as we know it, this would indeed be another major transition in evolution and, equally significant, a transcendent example of Synergistic Selection. One of the great take-home lessons from the epic of evolution is that cooperation produces synergy, and synergy is the way forward. The arc of evolution bends toward synergy.


“…Synergistic Selection… is an eloquent refutation of the standard story of ‘selfish genes.’ While abounding in biological detail, Synergistic Selection is easily accessible to a lay audience.”

—Herbert Gintis, External Professor, Santa Fe Institute and co-author of (among others) A Cooperative Species.

“Peter Corning’s book is a marvelous addition to the growing literature about the emerging alternative to gene-centric neo-Darwinism in evolutionary biology…The progressive evolution of multiple levels of organisation in living systems has harnessed blind chance. This book tells you how (and why) this occurred.”

—Denis Noble, CBE, FRS, FRCP, FMedSci, Burden Sanderson Chair of Cardiovascular Physiology, Oxford University, Emeritus, and author of (among others) The Music of Life.

“Peter Corning’s new book presents a grand view of evolution and highlights the role of synergy in the accelerating complexity of our modern world… He is able to cast new light on some of the major challenges of our century – from economic inequality and political governance to climate change.”

—Geoffrey Hodgson, Research Professor of Business Studies, University of Hertfordshire, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics and author of (among others) Conceptualizing Capitalism.


“The concept of society as an organism has a long history as a metaphor but only very recently has been placed on a solid scientific foundation. The implications for public policy are transformative and Peter Corning’s Synergistic Selection provides an excellent guide for the general public and policy experts of all stripes.”

—David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor, Binghamton University, President, Evolution Institute and author (among others) of Does Altruism Exist?

“…We are in the midst of a major paradigm shift in which Peter Corning has been a pioneer. His book offers a wonderful overview of the new evolution landscape. Be gone intelligent designers and blind watchmakers – let the light of synergy in!”

—Dick Vane-Wright, Honorary Professor of Taxonomy, University of Kent, UK, Scientific Associate, the Natural History Museum, London, and editor of The Role of Behaviour in Evolution.

“Peter Corning has given us a book that not only expertly summarizes the current state of the art in evolutionary biology, it also points the way to a compelling new understanding of how we arrived at our place in the natural world.”

—John M. Gowdy, Professor of Economics and Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and co-author of Paradise for Sale.

“In his new book Synergistic Selection, Peter Corning explains in an elegant and detailed way the rise of complexity in living systems over time and the major transitions in evolution…“

—Francisco Carrapiço, Professor of Biology, University of Lisbon, Portugal

“Synergy, selection, and emergence are central concepts in relation to complex systems… You could not find a better place to start an inquiry into the evolving science of the future of cooperation in a complex world.”

—John Smart, Founder, Acceleration Studies Foundation and author of The Foresight Guide.

Synergistic Selection is an important contribution to our understanding of evolution… An essential read at the intersection of science, inspiration, and sustainability.”

—Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution and host of “The Future Is Calling Us to Greatness

“A brilliant, timely, and much needed contribution.”

—David Korten, co-founder & Board Chair of YES! Magazine and author of When Corporations Rule the World.

Category: Publications